Change Is a Process, Not an Event

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Curt Wang

Is your organization rolling out a major change? Restructures, mergers, acquisitions, new systems, and new business lines are the norm as companies move to respond to a more challenging and increasingly fast-moving, unpredictable business environment.

When launching a significant change initiative, one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to view the change as an event that happens at a single point in time. Accepting and then embracing change is a process not an event. No matter how well you craft your initial announcement to employees, this should be viewed as just one of many conversations to generate employee buy-in, not the end. People naturally have resistance to change; for many, buy-in is a process that may take days, weeks or even months to achieve. Expect immediate buy-in at your own risk: at best you may achieve compliance without lasting commitment.

Here are five tips that can help you increase your odds of success by focusing on the people side of change.

1. Don’t judge individuals by their initial reaction. Give people time to come on board and process the change before judging their willingness to accept the change and be a team player. When making a big announcement on a major change, recognize that the shock of the news will instantly start minds spinning over the personal ramifications. It is people’s natural survival instinct to immediately focus on the fear of loss or loss of control rather than to appreciate the potential benefits of a change. Don't be surprised if some initial reactions are quite negative. Some individuals may need several weeks before going through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: shock and denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. You may falsely judge that an employee won’t come on board with the change if you observe them while they are in the early stages. However, keep in mind that this does not mean that they will not eventually accept the change once they are able to process it.

2. Realize that much of what you say immediately after making the announcement may not be heard.  The shock of learning about major change can start people’s minds spinning. Lost in their own thoughts, people may not be clearly hearing and absorbing important details that you may be communicating. Leaders are always surprised to learn, after making a major announcement loaded with helpful and important information, how little was actually heard. Keep in mind that, as the leader planning the change, you have had weeks or perhaps months to process the change yourself during what typically involves weeks or months of planning meetings.

3. Ask your staff how they feel about the change. When you ask employees what they think about the change, what you are asking is, "Is the change logical from a business perspective?" You may get a very positive response, which may fool you into believing the staff member is emotionally on board. However, one can think the change is a rational one and yet personally feel very threatened. Asking the staff member what they feel about the change may elicit a very different answer regarding their emotions, allowing you to better understand and address concerns.

4. Allow your key managers to have time to process and accept change themselves, before they meet with their staff. Change needs to be cascaded down the organization. Executives need to bring their managers on board and then managers need to bring their staff on board. Because of legitimate fears about controlling news about change, managers often hold meetings with their staff before they have had a chance to process and accept the change themselves. If managers are working to convince their staff that the change is positive, yet they are not fully committed themselves, messages from the manager will be perceived as disingenuous.

5. Identify and bring key opinion leaders on-board first. In every team, there are opinion leaders outside the ranks of management who other staff members take their cues from. There also are staff members who more quickly accept change or perhaps even embrace it. If you can early on enlist the key people who both embrace change and are opinion leaders, they can help set the tone for the group’s reaction to change.

Paradoxically, moving too fast can make your change initiative take longer. When you don't take the time to build commitment, people act out of self-interest and fear, resulting in decisions and actions that can slow down or even sabotage your change efforts. By recognizing that change is a process, you will be in a better position to successfully manage the "people" side of change, significantly increasing the odds of creating successful change.

About the Author(s)

Curt Wang is an executive coach at Make the Leap! Coaching.  He coaches smart, creative, and successful executives and professionals to reach higher levels of performance and achieve their business and career goals. He is also an expert and professional speaker on the topics of change leadership and organizational change. For more information, visit contact [email protected].